“learning to listen” exercise

This exercise involves a semester-long, hands-on training on the critically important first steps of gathering the often-confusing and sometimes-concealed facts of real-world engineering/science controversies. Offering in-depth ethnographic listening as a tool for empirically-based explorations of the moral dimensions of a case, the training consists of three phases. The first two prepare students for the third, which comprises the term project. They are as follows:

  • Phase 1: Anatomy of in-depth listening. Students write about four of their own experiences with in-depth listening: two that they had as speakers (one when they felt listened to and one when they did not) and two as listeners (one when they recall listening closely to a speaker and one when they did not). They describe behaviors, observations, and feelings they remember associated with each memory, concluding with a reflection on what “good” and “bad” listening look and feel like, as well as what effects they can have on one’s capacity to express oneself or relate to others. Responses are compiled for everyone’s review. They provide extensive insight into the power that listening and non-listening can have to enhance or undermine respectively a speaker’s comfort, focus, clarity of thought, ability to communicate effectively, capacity to stay in the conversation, and self-esteem.
  • Phase 2: Practice of in-depth listening. Students conduct one face-to-face interview with someone they know well. They focus on understanding views that their interviewee holds but that they, themselves, find objectionable. The goal is to gain clarity on those views and the reasons behind them, while refraining from interpretation and judgment. Students are advised to ask all questions necessary to see the subject in question from their interviewee’s perspective. They are reminded that their task is understanding, not necessarily agreeing. Written reports provide reflection on what students learned and how they performed as interviewers. The latter assessment includes interviewee feedback as well.
  • Phase 3: In-depth listening in engineering and science. Students conduct a sustained investigation into an unfolding engineering controversy, which culminates in one in-depth ethnographic interview of an affected stakeholder whose voice is underrepresented or misrepresented in official depictions of the case (e.g., parent, grassroots community organization representative, whistleblower, scientist advocate). Final reports consist of a detailed description of the case; a discussion of key moral transgressions as identified by interviewees; interviewee values, goals, and visions of a just resolution; “lessons learned” that may have changed students’ original understanding of the case; reflections on the conduct of engineers/scientists in the case; and thoughts on actions students, themselves, would want to have taken if they were themselves involved. Although usually each student selects a topic of his/her choice, in 2012 all students interviewed stakeholders in a case we preselected: the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York’s (CACWNY) fight against Tonawanda Coke Corporation’s benzene air emissions. The aim of this final phase is to enable students to see a case from the perspective of a marginalized stakeholder and to appreciate that diverse knowledges, values, and goals can add crucially important and technically relevant complexities to official depictions of engineering/science controversies.

This is the assignment:

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